This is the tale of two ancient cities and the trees that determine their destinies. In 3000 BC the city of Uruk, currently situated in Iraq was highly populated. At times the density of the city exceeded the current population density of New York City. Similarly, about 2500 years later, the great city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka AKA Ceylon had a similar sort of a problem. The two civilizations were far ahead in their time, everyone in the suburbs was attracted to live around these highly developed cities. Due to this massive inflow of civilians, the city had to heavily rely on advanced irrigation systems to maintain balance and to feed them.
As the city of Uruk expanded, they cut down trees to make space for the new population. They kept expanding at a rapid rate without considering the implications of their actions. On the other hand, for people in Sri Lanka, trees were sacred. They treated trees with respect and they believed that trees too carry life and a soul. As they believed that Buddha himself attained Nirwana under a Boo tree. For them, cutting down trees to expand was never an option. This was mainly because the county was very spiritually rich during that period. The religious leaders had a huge say in the way the county is ruled. They even influenced its people to plant additional trees.
Initially, the Uruk’s method of expansion worked well. It was fast and convenient. However, as time goes by, due to lesser trees around the area to filter the water that goes into the irrigation system, the water became too contaminated. Eventually, the whole civilization starts to collapse as the irrigation system that kept it running failed.
On the flip side, the city of Anuradhapura thrived to grow twice the size of Uruk. Exceeding over 150,000 people cramped up in the city without any fear of famine. If you visit the country now, you can still see the trees planted at that period. They still care for the trees planted by their ancestors.
We may think that urban development and nature do not intertwine together. Yet, it is evident that trees had been an essential part of any successful civilization. Its deep root systems filter the rainwater that enters the soil before releasing it back. They also help to keep the soil together in on heavy rains avoiding landslides. Deep roots can carry water far into the soil reducing the risk of floods. The process of cleaning air goes without saying. All these are the benefits that trees could give to a city’s structure. Yet, there are even greater benefits to the people who live in those cities.
In modern-day Hong Kong, the underground infrastructure and tall skyscrapers reduce the chances of trees to grow. As a result, the city is surfing from extremely bad air qualities leading up to lung deceases. In the ancient New York the buildings absorbed over 90% solar radiation increasing the heat massively. It created the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria like cholera.
Trees can also impact the mental health of its citizens. Through evolution, humans find trees as a sign of safety and supply of nourishment. We are programmed to get stressed when we don’t get to see enriched environments for a prolonged period.
One could think that there will always be a limit to planning trees as the city grows. But the city of Singapore has made that idea obsolete. Over 50% of its landmass is currently covered in trees. That is one such nation that got it all right.
Incorporating trees has always been an important aspect of city planning. It is estimated that over 60% of the world population will live in cities by 2025. The city planners will make sure that the cities are green as It can be. But it is us to make sure that they stay that way.